Recent headlines about Americans being detained and/or arrested in North Korea and Iran have put the spotlight on the potential dangers of international travel.
Almost every day, there are international incidents of political unrest and other various potential threats posed against traveling U.S. citizens.
These types of situations always highlight the importance of safety and security for Americans who travel overseas.
In addition, terrorists are going after innocent people at so called “soft target” locations. A “soft target” is a term used by security experts to describe a lightly protected civilian location that a terrorist might strike. A recent trend in terrorism shows that these cowardly thugs are frequently targeting soft targets such as commuter trains, resorts, and hotels.
If you are going to travel overseas, here are some travel safety tips from the U.S. Department of State: Safety begins when you pack. To avoid being a target, dress conservatively. Don't wear expensive-looking jewelry. A flashy wardrobe or one that is too casual can mark you as a tourist. As much as possible, avoid the appearance of affluence.
Always try to travel light. You can move more quickly and will be more likely to have a free hand. You will also be less tired and less likely to set your luggage down, leaving it unattended. Carry the minimum amount of valuables necessary for your trip and conceal them. Your passport, cash, and credit cards are most secure when locked in a hotel safe. When you have to carry them on your person, you may wish to conceal them in several places rather than putting them all in one wallet or pouch. Avoid handbags, fanny packs, and outside pockets that are easy targets for thieves.
Inside pockets and a sturdy shoulder bag with the strap worn across your chest are somewhat safer. One of the safest places to carry valuables is in a pouch or money belt worn under your clothing.
Bring travelers checks and one or two major credit cards instead of cash. Pack an extra set of passport photos along with a photocopy of your passport information page to make replacement of your passport easier in the event it is lost or stolen. Put your name, address, and telephone numbers inside and outside of each piece of luggage. Use covered luggage tags to avoid casual observation of your identity or nationality. If possible, lock your luggage. Don't bring anything you would hate to lose, like valuable or expensive-looking jewelry, irreplaceable family objects, all unnecessary credit cards, Social Security card, library cards, and similar items you may routinely carry in your wallet. Leave a copy of your itinerary with family or friends at home in case they need to contact you in an emergency. The Department of State's “Consular Information Sheets” are available for every country of the world. They describe entry requirements, currency regulations, unusual health conditions, the crime and security situation, political disturbances, areas of instability, and special information about driving and road conditions.
They also provide addresses and emergency telephone numbers for U.S. embassies and consulates. In general, the sheets do not give advice. Instead, they describe conditions so travelers can make informed decisions about their trips.
In some dangerous situations, however, the Department of State recommends that Americans defer travel to a country. In such a case, a “travel warning” is issued for the country in addition to its Consular Information Sheet.
“Public announcements” are a means to disseminate information about relatively short-term and/or transnational conditions posing significant risks to the security of American travelers. They are issued when there is a perceived threat, even if it does not involve Americans as a particular target group. In the past, public announcements have been issued to deal with short-term coups, pre-election disturbances, violence by terrorists, and anniversary dates of specific terrorist events. Use the same common sense traveling overseas that you would at home. Be especially cautious in or avoid areas where you are likely to be victimized. These include crowded subways, train stations, elevators, tourist sites, market places, festivals, and marginal areas of cities.
Don't use short cuts, narrow alleys or poorly-lit streets. Try not to travel alone at night.
Avoid public demonstrations and other civil disturbances.
Keep a low profile and avoid loud conversations or arguments. Do not discuss travel plans or other personal matters with strangers.
Avoid scam artists. Beware of strangers who approach you, offering bargains or to be your guide.
Beware of pickpockets. They often have an accomplice who will jostle you, ask you for directions or the time, point to something spilled on your clothing, or distract you by creating a disturbance.
A child or even a woman carrying a baby can be a pickpocket. Beware of groups of vagrant children who create a distraction while picking your pocket.
Wear the shoulder strap of your bag across your chest and walk with the bag away from the curb to avoid drive-by purse-snatchers.
Try to seem purposeful when you move about. Even if you are lost, act as if you know where you are going. When possible, ask directions only from individuals in authority.
Know how to use a pay telephone and have the proper change or token on hand.
Learn a few important phrases in the local language so you can signal your need for help, the police, or a doctor. Make a note of emergency telephone numbers you may need: police, fire, your hotel, and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
If you are confronted, don't fight back. Give up your valuables.
Your money and passport can be replaced, but you cannot. Terrorist acts occur at random and unpredictably, making it impossible to protect yourself absolutely. The first and best protection is to avoid travel to unsafe areas where there has been a persistent record of terrorist attacks or kidnappings. The vast majority of foreign states have good records of maintaining public order and protecting residents and visitors within their borders from terrorism.
Most terrorist attacks are the result of long and careful planning. Just as a car thief will first be attracted to an unlocked car with the key in the ignition, terrorists are looking for defenseless, easily accessible targets that follow predictable patterns. The chances that a tourist, traveling with an unpublished program or itinerary, would be the victim of terrorism are slight. In addition, many terrorist groups, seeking publicity for political causes within their own country or region, may not be looking for American targets.
Nevertheless, the following pointers may help you avoid becoming a target of opportunity. They should be considered as adjuncts to the tips listed in the previous sections on how to protect yourself against the far greater likelihood of being a victim of crime. These precautions may provide some degree of protection, and can serve as practical and psychological deterrents to would-be terrorists. Schedule direct flights if possible and avoid stops in high-risk airports or areas. Consider other options for travel, such as trains. Be aware of what you discuss with strangers or what may be overheard by others.
Try to minimize the time spent in the public area of an airport, which is a less protected area. Move quickly from the check-in counter to the secured areas. On arrival, leave the airport as soon as possible.
As much as possible, avoid luggage tags, dress, and behavior that may identify you as an American. Keep an eye out for suspicious abandoned packages or briefcases. Report them to airport security or other authorities and leave the area promptly. Avoid obvious terrorist targets such as places where Americans and Westerners are known to congregate.
These are just a few of the very basic suggestions for overseas travel safety presented by the Department of State. For more information, log on to: www.travel.state.gov.
My Final Thoughts: Traveling overseas, either for pleasure or for business, can be a magnificent experience. There is, unfortunately, a real threat from terrorists, common criminals, and even sometimes, rogue governments. Of course, there is no guarantee that you will not be a victim of crime or terrorism. However, following the Department of State’s safety advice, as well as your own common sense, can go a long way to help mitigate the risks of international travel.
Copyright 2009 by Bruce Mandelblit
Bruce Mandelblit (www.Mandelblit.com) is a nationally known security and safety journalist, as well as a recently retired, highly decorated reserve law enforcement officer. His e-mail address is [email protected]
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